By Laura Reiley
Times Food Critic
The Plaza Tower and Courtyard Shops have been booming ever since the Ale and the Witch and Wine Madonna got going. It makes sense: Grab a beer if that's your thing, a wine if you lean that way, then sit out in the lovely courtyard and enjoy a little live music or just a balmy downtown evening al fresco. But then what if you get hungry?
Plaza Tower has had mixed success with restaurants. The French creperie L'Olivier lived here briefly. Zapata's limped along in a second-floor space, closing and reopening as El Metate, a real stinker. Sab Cafe, a small Vietnamese grab-and-go, started off fairly weak but has refined its lineup of pho, vermicelli bowls and very decent pineapple fried rice.
Meanwhile the El Metate space stood vacant, even in the face of so much hubbub in the courtyard. Ale and the Witch owner Brett Andress got to thinking that the space might be ripe for barbecue, something that downtown doesn't have in reckless abundance.
After a couple of visits, the Witches BBQ Den reads like a work in progress. There's a lot of good work being done, but it has some challenges. On the plus side, the $8.99 lunch buffet, which includes a drink, is a great deal. House-smoked meats like pulled pork and chicken, smoked sausage and riblets are offered in steam trays alongside dishes like sweet potato casserole, white cheddar and jalapeno grits, smoked pork and beans, mashed potatoes, cheesy shells and bread pudding. It's homey, filling and the scent of barbecue smoke will follow you back to the office to taunt your cubicle mates.
In support of the 'cue the front counter is crowded with a range of barbecue sauces, from a fruity Florida version to Memphis and Kansas City style. It's fun to experiment with a squirt of several. Still, the single best dish doesn't require any sauce at all: A smoked salmon spread ($6.99) is moist and super flavorful, definitely one of Pinellas' fish spreads of note.
It's at dinnertime when things get a little hinky. El Metate was a vast space. As Witches BBQ Den, the dining room is often utterly empty and dim, hungry courtyarders zipping in to the counter to order and taking their booty back outside. All that empty space is off-putting and a little spooky at night.
So, you order and take your flimsy paper boats of 'cue and fixings outside. The way it's packaged makes it hard to transport and nearly impossible to share. You don't want to be spooning pork and beans or mac and cheese from a communal trough, even if you have great affection for your tablemates. Real plates and silverware would be logistically tough (how to corral them back upstairs to the restaurant?), but it would drastically improve the eating experience.
The barbecue itself shows some inconsistency. It's always deeply smoky, but on one visit this meant whole chicken wings that were smoked to a near jerky-like texture, another visit the ribs were succulent and tender. There's clearly a market for beer- and wine-friendly food in the courtyard, especially late at night. Andress and his crew seem to be on the right track, but they'll need to tinker a little if they want these witches to perform magically.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.